By Scott Ross
A good Western from John Wayne’s late period, with a sharp and even occasionally witty screenplay by Harry Julian Fink and R. (Rita) M. Fink, a characteristically robust Elmer Bernstein score and a typically savory performance by Richard Boone as the story’s mercenary central miscreant. It’s the sort of movie in which characters remind each other that it’s 1909, presumably to prepare the audience for the sight of sniper rifles and REO Touring Cars in what looks like the Old West, and where an old reprobate (John Wayne) does battle with his estranged and snarky older sons (Patrick Wayne and Christopher Mitchum) as well as with the heavies who have kidnapped his youngest for a hefty (million-dollar here) ransom. And if the movie is no more, or less, than what many Wayne fans of the time expected, there are a few surprises along the way, the picture is seldom less than engaging, and it even holds an occasional, modernist twist: Instead of circling Conastogas in an Indian raid, for example, we get Federal Marshals hiding behind their REOs. And where “Little” Jake (Ethan Wayne) is shown at the beginning in the appalling “sissy” clothes of the period, complete with frilly white collar and wide-brimmed and beribboned hat, we are least spared “Big” Jake ridiculing the boy or having to teach him how to be a man.
Maureen O’Hara gives her usual flinty performance as Jake’s estranged wife (and with a creditable American accent); the younger Mitchum is better and more naturally charming here than in the later The Last Hard Men; the junior Wayne likewise acquits himself admirably; Harry Carey, Jr. is almost shockingly nasty as the oldest of the kidnappers; and there’s a clever Magic Lantern show in the opening titles, narrated by George Fenneman, no less. There’s also some lovely matte-work by Albert Whitlock and the often beautiful cinematography is by William H. Clothier, whose previous pictures as director of photography included Ford’s Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the striking Track of the Cat for William Wellman, Merrill’s Marauders for Samuel Fuller, the dark Stewart-Fonda Western Firecreek, and Rio Lobo for Howard Hawks. Harry Gerstad’s editing is crisp and utilitarian, some odd moments of discontinuity nothwithstanding, and Bernstein’s score includes, along with his customarily ebullient title theme, the effective use of harp and guitar as percussion during the final battle.
The screenplay contains the same style of laconic yet lightly crackling dialogue that distinguishes the exchanges in Rio Bravo, and a nicely stated threat by Boone which Wayne deftly turns on him: “Anything goes wrong, anything at all… your fault, my fault, nobody’s fault… it won’t matter — I’m gonna blow your head off.” The generally likable script by the Finks (who also in 1971 created the quasi-fascistic “Dirty Harry” Callahan) nonetheless descends into occasional low throughs, as when Wayne resurrects his own “That’ll be the day” in The Searchers and, later, paraphrases John Huston’s paraphrase of Shakespeare from The Maltese Falcon.
Wayne, whose gravelly voice here betrays his medical history — he’d had a lung removed from cancer — gives the sort of relaxed, amusing and assured performance expected of him, and he gets a great antagonist in Boone. As John Fain, whose only concern is money, Boone is intelligent, seemingly reasonable and casually murderous; he’s not looking to kill, but he’s not averse to it if it gets him what he wants. It’s the sort of role he made his own in pictures as diverse as Rio Conchos, The Night of the Following Day and The Kremlin Letter. His approach to arch villainy here is erudition, eloquence and a genial surface beneath which runs a river of ice water. I would imagine the Finks wrote the character’s dialogue with Boone in mind; once an actor develops a screen persona that works, even a base hack can hear that voice in his head as he’s typing.
One weird note: Jake has a reliable old Apache compatriot called Sam Sharpnose (played richly but with what would now be an unthinkable lack of appropriate ethnicity by Bruce Cabot) and a big, dark Collie he calls “Dog” who metes out toothy justice whenever he’s commanded. Both are dispatched in the big final shoot-out, chopped to bits by a frightening machete-wielding psychopath yet when the dust settles, not a moment is spared to respect either of them; it’s heigh-ho and on our way, with a happy final freeze-frame of the “Big” and “Little” Jakes. Since Jake himself isn’t heartless, I can only presume the filmmakers had additional material at the end that was cut by the studio. Further, the deaths of Sam and Dog are so discreetly recorded that neither emits so much as a soft mewl as he’s being hacked to ribbons. That’s carrying circumspection to rather an extreme, don’t you think?
Big Jake was directed with no special distinction whatsoever by George Sherman, whose last movie this was in a long career without a single significant title in it.
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross